Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dionysian Alternative

It is a radical premise – that groups, businesses, even societies need not depend on predictability, hierarchy and control, that another way is truly possible. In reaching to command and shape natural forces, other living beings and humanity, so-called “rational managers” have smothered their instincts in a machine-made blanket of so-called facts. “Total systemic predictability became an imaginary carrot dangled from the calibrated stick of science,” I argued in 1974. “As a result, tools have been used to shape human beings in an image that appeared to Renaissance philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, and certainty-bound mechanics. In the 20th century, the reflex doctrine of controlled and controlling humanity has become the central prophecy of our age. “

The alternative, initially outlined in my master’s thesis at the University of Vermont, is a revolutionary approach called Dionysian leadership, a reference to the much-misunderstood archetype of inspiration. Perhaps it isn’t the most commercial choice for a name, especially given the association of the word Dionysus with excess, drinking, and dissipation. But that’s precisely the point. Exaggerating the threat of chaos – the essence of the much-exploited fear doctrine – rationalists through the ages have hidden and denied humanity’s Dionysian potential: the ability to produce inspiration, joy, and blessing.

Artistic methods like metaphorical thinking and intuition can be used to build and sustain more humane organizations. Metaphorical method relies on both sense experience and spontaneous creation. The first – observation by the senses – is a traditional scientific tool. When combined with abstract thought it leads to scientific theory. 

Leaders don’t have to be insulated "professionals" or executives within a hierarchy. Instead they can act as integrated group members whose specific contribution is their ability to create images of whole systems, and to initiate change while maintaining a harmony of meaning between their groups and the environment.

“In Dionysian collectives, structure emerges gradually as a by-product of activity. History combines with the sum of individual perceptions to shape the future of the group. The leader is a generalist. Others may move toward specialization as they increase their awareness of interpersonal relations and the meshing of individual and group purposes. The leader assists them in shaping and reshaping their group meaning, and varying their individual experiences. Although leaders assume ‘operational’ tasks along with everyone else, their central assignment is the continual posing of questions that promote spontaneity and change. Rather than relying on analysis – the orderly sequencing of thoughts – they use association – the relationship between ideas.

“Taken together, these approaches make the leadership role a force away from centralization. Large systems are broken into more functional units, each one operationally autonomous yet sensitive to the infinitely varying purposes of other groups. It is at the level of purpose that Dionysian collectives relate, and their leaders open the gates for the transfer of energy. The assumption that unifies these entities is that belief regulates all structures. Dionysian leaders expand the limits of belief and restrict the limits of resulting structures.”

It sounds utopian – on the surface. But my project team had made it work and we’d collected some verifiable evidence. When I finally presented my thesis to the Dean of the College of Education and other university officials in early 1975, they considered the research and arguments convincing enough to recommend the manuscript for publication.

By then, however, the suits had ended my government career.

Over the summer of 1974 I had arranged to launch the next phase of para-professional training through the state college system. Education and college credentials were essential to success, so it seemed like an ideal marriage. But the suits had no intention of letting me continue working for the state, and threatened to withhold revenue sharing money unless the chancellor agreed to move ahead without me. Peter Smith, a friend and then president of Community College, had to deliver the bad news.

“They compared you to John Froines,” he confided, a reference to the former Chicago Eight defendant who had become Vermont’s director of Occupational Health and Safety. I took it as a compliment. Froines was bringing serious attention to the potential health risks of the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power plant in southeastern Vermont. “They say you have a poison pen,” Smith added, “and they don’t need another John Froines.” Since Froines was a classified state employee they couldn’t do much about him. I had no such protection.

As I finished the thesis my career as a public servant came to an end. Fortunately, one of the colleges I’d worked with had a faculty opening. The Vermont Institute for Community Involvement – then known as VICI, later to become Burlington College – was a new school catering to “non-traditional” learners, many of them Vietnam War vets. It provided the chance to design their majors and take courses that traditional colleges weren’t offering at the time. Some of the faculty had been on my project team.

It was disappointing to see that, despite rhetoric about “empowering” communities, revenue sharing was another scam, but I’d learned a valuable lesson. Experience was producing a critique of centralized power based on both theory and practice. Yet the research had also left me skeptical about the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx. In his scientific philosophy, the material world was the only relevant reality. Strained to the limit through the replacement of humans by machines, workers would ultimately unite in a "cooperative form of labor-process" and overthrow the capitalist system, he predicted. However, he favored increases in production tied to technological improvements, what he called "conscious technical application of science," and had no sympathy for inefficiency.

For Marx and his followers, changes in the mode of production were what determined social change, a force assumed to be beyond human control. The individual was the object and sometimes the victim of external forces and institutions that could only be changed by "objective" experience and labor. At the heart of Marxism there seemed to be a false prophecy – that control by external forces would ultimately lead to productive relations between human beings within an efficient, cooperative society. In this imagined classless society, tools that had previously increased misery would serve humanity. I didn’t share such faith in the promise of technology, the seductive idea that a technical cure could be applied to the spreading disease of mechanism.

The real problem was the dominance of centralistic, authoritarian, and absolutist thinking. My proposal was to replace them, along with rationalization and hierarchy, as the road to personal liberation and global harmony. The more people allow themselves to be represented from outside, the less community life is left. I was counting on community, on the joint and active management of what we hold in common, to promote genuine freedom and spontaneous social action. Soon I would get the chance to test these bold assertions.

Chapter Two of Prelude to a Revolution

Next: Evolution of a Business Town

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